Before the pandemic hosed it completely, I was running a Dungeons & Dragons game at a local game store aimed specifically at introducing tweens to the game. This involved walking them through the hundreds of pages of character creation options, trying to figure out what they wanted to play, and why it probably shouldn’t be six paladins. One kid who seemed like he’d read a lot of the books and knew all sorts of stuff about the game’s decades of lore paused on the option to create a dark elf and acted confused, because they’re supposed to all be evil.
“I don’t like to say that,” I told him. “It’s not a good thing to say all people of a certain culture are evil. That’s not how it is in real life, right?”
Dungeons & Dragons comes from a lot of things, some of them deeply problematic, and it has diverged from them so fundamentally in its nearly 50 years that the entire industry and the many people who enjoy the hobby are in the midst of reexamining basically everything about it. (This is all a world away from the controversies the pastime contended with when it first came out.)
It’s amid conversations exactly like these within the wider consumer and fan base of tabletop gaming that Amazon Prime Video’s The Legend of Vox Machina arrives, just as D&D’s corporate owners are also making moves to bring the property back to the big screen. While the show doesn’t have any official connection with the game, Critical Role—the web show the characters and world are based on—is transparently grounded in the storytelling of the tabletop roleplaying game that game master Matt Mercer is running, and the characters his group of professional voice actor pals are portraying. I’ve pondered the challenges of adapting something like D&D to a film or TV format before. If, like me, you believe it should be less about overblown lore and more about the feeling of getting together with a bunch of your pals to mainline pizza and crack jokes while you collaborate on how to best the monsters in a friend’s bespoke adventure (that is peppered with references to whatever books or movies they’ve just watched), then The Legend of Vox Machina’s first six episodes available for review (out of 12) could serve as a proof of concept for that approach.
Critical Role is an “actual play” experience, a web show (or oftentimes a podcast) which gives the viewer a tableside seat as a group of people play through a tabletop roleplaying game, complete with all the nail biting over what to do when the group encounters a door, and delays when one of the participants needs to look up what you need to roll to use magic missile. (Nothing! Let it fly!) The Legend of Vox Machina takes the setting and characters from the Critical Role show, removes the inconvenience of dice, movement restrictions, and spell slot limitations, and turns it into a proudly R-rated cartoon. Vox Machina is the name of the eponymous group of mercs at the center of the show’s story, a down-on-their-luck crew of murder hobos whose immediate concerns include an astronomical bar tab and poor local reputation. They’re also struggling with their grim backstories, with that of bespectacled gunslinger Percy de Rolo (Taliesin Jaffe) taking center stage in the first handful of episodes.
The show’s two-parter pilot introduces our cast without making the mistake of baldly describing what’s on their character sheets: Besides Percy, we can be pretty certain that Grog (Travis Willingham) is a barbarian, Pike (Ashley Johnson) is a cleric or priestess, Keyleth (Marisha Ray) is druid or some manner of nature mage, fraternal twin half-elves Vax and Vex (Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey) have the markings of a rogue and a ranger, and Scanlan (Sam Riegel) is, gods help us, the stereotypical Horny Bard. The show also doesn’t waste time with the group’s formation, instead choosing to thrust us into the story and trust the party’s collective Charisma scores to keep us interested.
It’s the best way the show’s team could have approached the task of introducing a seven-person ensemble, and the concept is paired with decent animation that incorporates bursts of good fight choreography: Vox Machina’s members bust heads, shoot lightning bolts and swarms of bees, fly into berserk rages, and occasionally have trouble unlocking one lousy door. If you wanted a show about D&D with the serial numbers filed off, it’s got you covered. After its two-part opener, the show’s next four episodes see the mercenaries off on a quest to liberate Percy’s homeland from the threat which destroyed his family.
More interesting than any of that is where the show decides to focus, or rather, what it thinks a D&D show is. The 1983 cartoon, which is remembered with some fondness and bemusement by some of the last generation’s players, was very much an “’80s kids” show. There wasn’t anything complicated happening with the heroes, and everything was family friendly. Vox Machina is very much not that kind of series, as noted by the content warning that floats in the corner of the screen; it is at times just as violent as Amazon’s other big animated series, Invincible, with at least one explicit sex scene. Basically, it’s the bawdy game you’d play in college.
While there isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the principal Critical Role cast, the show comes down on the side of a kind of casual inclusivity, appearing (at least in this early run of episodes), to studiously avoid the racial essentialism which forms more of the bedrock of tabletop roleplaying gaming than many like to admit. Nobody makes any off-hand comments about a character acting or thinking a certain way because of their heritage, and the kingdom of Tal’Dorei’s population looks like what you’d get if a whole city went nuts creating characters with a pile of sourcebooks taller than a halfling.
The Legend of Vox Machina is a competently produced story decidedly informed by the sensibilities of a new generation of players, the kind of series that shares DNA with the ’83 cartoon and the disastrous 2000 film, but also looks absolutely nothing like either of them. And while it won’t net Hasbro any royalties, it unquestionably moves the phenomenon one step deeper into the mainstream.
The first three episodes of The Legend of Vox Machina premiere Friday, January 28th on Amazon Prime Video.
Kenneth Lowe would like to rage. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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